Friday, October 31, 2008

Alphabets, Politics, Dating, and Jewish Pedagogy: When the Medium is also a Message

[This week's Haveil Havalim is out here! And a very good edition it is.]

Lois McMaster Bujold, in her Miles Vorkosigan books, tells a story of rebels attempting to smuggle support to their mountain resistance. Their oppressors check every horse entering the mountains, but find neither weapons nor supplies. Only in the end, when the resistance is successful, do they realize that the horses were not carrying weapons - the horses were the weapons.

That story came to mind as I prepared for a class I gave this past Shabbos, on the evolution of the Hebrew alphabet - because, as I saw in my research, sometimes the Medium is also the Message.

A bit of background: Every November we cover a monthlong theme through classes, events and displays in shul. We started this practice several years ago with “17th century Jewry” in honor of the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in North America, and then we followed up with Sephardic Jewry, Chassidus and Israel at 60. This year we are looking at The Jewish Book, so my classes this month focus on different aspects of Jewish printing. Our centerpiece scholar-in-residence will be Professor David Stern of University of Pennsylvania, and he’ll talk about the printed machzor, chumash and gemara. But back to our topic:

This Shabbos, I taught a class on "Who Invented Rashi Script?" The answer, it seems clear to me, is that Rashi never used Rashi Script. Rashi may well have used one of the semi-cursive hands which were popular in his day, but Rashi Script does not turn up until the 13th century. Also, I am convinced by Herbert C. Zafren's contention ("Early Yiddish Typography," in Jewish Book Annual, Vol. 44, 1986-1987/5747) that Rashi script most closely mirrors a Sephardic semi-cursive which was current in the Middle Ages - but which Rashi, as a German-trained French scholar, would not have seen.

Rather, Rashi script was used by printers when they first produced chumashim with Rashi's commentary. They used this font, I believe, for two reasons: First, they wanted to distinguish between the text and the commentary, for religious reasons. Second, once they were choosing an alternative font they chose this Sephardic-based font because it's smaller than block print, allowing them to fit in more text in a smaller space (see Meir Benayahu's הסכמה ורשות בדפוס ויניציאה pg. 258).

The idea of distinguishing between text and commentary is particularly important, and is the way in which the medium is the message. The Rambam wrote (teshuvah 268) that one may not use Ktav Ashurit, the Assyrian alphabet which we consider traditional Hebrew script, for normal correspondence and mundane matters. Granted that Tashbetz (teshuvah 1:5) disagreed, many halachic authorities followed the view of the Rambam; it's even cited in the Rama (Yoreh Deah 284:2). Therefore, we can tell, by looking at which script is used, just how sacred the content is. (And so there is a very interesting halachic discussion on whether one should, or should not, use Ktav Ashurit for a Get.)

There is much more to say on this, but it was a 45-minute class and this is a blog post. So to return to the main idea, that the medium is, sometimes, also the message:

We see this in politics. When a politician has a Facebook page, the news is not what's on the page; the news is that he has one at all. Or when a politician sends a surrogate to speak before an audience, he tries to use a surrogate with whom the audience can identify, based on religion or skin color or career or geography. It doesn't matter what the surrogate says, since it'll only be a re-hash of material available elsewhere, but the message is that people like You (the audience) support this candidate.

We see it in dating, too: The way you dress, the car you drive, even the stationery on which you send a note (for those who still use pen and paper), these are the medium, but they are also the message. My Rebbetzin baked me chocolate chip cookies for our first date, because I had mentioned it was my birthday. The cookies were great, but the fact that she took the time to do it was the real message.

And, of course, since I am a rabbi and a Jewish father: In Jewish pedagogy, the medium is very often the message. The way we dress for shul (and when we show up!), the way we stand or sit while davening, it's all medium, but it's all message.

I can see it in the way my children daven with me; they are very attuned to these signals of medium. If they see me looking out of the siddur as I say the words, they don't take that tefilah seriously. If they hear me use a serious tone or cadence when saying another part of davening, they take it more seriously.

The kids actually pick up more cues about what I'm doing than I do, and all without consciously trying to do so. Maybe it's because they have heard the message so often that it's no longer compelling for them - but the medium may offer something new or varied each time.


  1. Whenever I hear "the medium is the message", I squirm.

    The definite article bugs me, because the message is also the message. Thus, I prefer: "The medium is a message".

    Just like, as in Avot, we're told to look not to the cask but what is it, (and anyone living with teenagers is oft reminded) it's important to make sure the message is a message, too.

    As with so many other issues, it's our responsibility to reject a false forced choice. Why can't we demand the highest quality of both the cask and its contents?

  2. Juggling-
    Duly edited, but I didn't mean it was the only message - just that it also plays a role. I suspect that is also what people usually mean.

  3. I didn't mean to make you edit; was reacting a pet peeve with the phrase, and I'm sorry if I sounded cranky.

    And I shouldn't have left out the part where I tell you that you made a number of excellent and important points here.

    Our kids are watching us. I particularly appreciate your mention of how they pick up on which tefilot are "important" by your body language.

    Shavua tov, and have a safe trip to/from Israel.

  4. i sent you a separate email.

    interesting rambam. does anyone write about the halakhic aspects of using square vs. semi-cursive?

    "350th anniversary of Jewish life in North America . . . This year we are looking at The Jewish Book"

    i love american jewish history as well as hebrew typography. and specifically early hebrew typography in america.

    "My Rebbetzin baked me chocolate chip cookies for our first date, because I had mentioned it was my birthday. "

    pretty cool. doesn't sound like the typical cookie-cutter first shidduch date. (no pun intended.)

    "In Jewish pedagogy, the medium is very often the message."

    yes, varying the medium can reinforce the message in pedagogy, but in jewish life in general i think sometimes the medium is stressed and the message is ignored

  5. Yay, Bujold reference! Down with the Cetagandans! :-}

    I usually call this sort of information the "metadata" - the full context and nuances surrounding the official "event" itself. This is a lot of what anthropologists try to get at - the real meaning behind the message.

    By the way, if you don't find a place in Zichron to buy, can I interest you in a hot little territory called Vorkosigan Vashnoi?

  6. JF-

    Yes, there is quite a bit of material on this, especially regarding requiring Sirtut, Mezuzah, Get, Megilas Esther, and the kedushah of the Shem HaShem written in this language. In particular, the Get discussion is fascinating, as some are specifically in favor of using semi-cursive and others are specifically against. For good summary teshuvos see Ein Yitzchak I OC 5, Yabia Omer 4:YD 20:5, Tashbetz 1:2 and 1:8. On the Get issue, see Rashba 1:1191, Beit Yosef Even haEzer 126 and HaElef Lecha Shlomo EH 145.

    If I get a chance, I'll post a piece I wrote on my plane ride back from Israel. It includes my new love, a place which might be considered Israel's equivalent of Vashnoi - Kibbutz Sa'ad.